How do we learn to lose, without losing ourselves?
I’ve never been very good at losing things. Or should I say, I’m perfectly apt at losing them, but I’ve never been good at dealing with it.
When I was five I misplaced my favourite Jill Murphy book, and I still worry that my own theoretical future-children will suffer for not inheriting it. You can buy it on Amazon for £5.07, which hasn’t soothed my worrying at all because it won’t be as good as my copy. Nothing will ever compare to that copy. Even if it was dog-eared and thick with spelling errors that were fixed in a later edition, it was perfect. What I’m getting at is that when we lose something, we eulogize it. But that’s human; any loss results in grief, at least in some small way.
I started university with a dad and a long-term boyfriend. I vacated my third-year flat with neither. As you can imagine, this was quite a lot to handle for the girl who was still working through the loss of Murphy’s Five Minutes’ Peace.
“When we lose something, we eulogize it”
Loss book-ended my university experience; my dad died suddenly in the opening scenes of my first term, and my relationship ended just after graduation. And in that ill-written gap between the two, I’d done such a great job of convincing myself I had healed (as long as I never had to lose anything ever again). But the thing about having things is that you’re liable to have to let them go. You’re liable to lose. It’s one of life’s cruellest but most important lessons.
The pain of losing a parent is indescribable, and the process of healing, especially when you’re 19, seems insurmountable. I can hardly remember it, save scream-crying myself to sleep on my rigid halls mattress, missing every formative lecture and calling student health services time and time again to cancel emergency counselling sessions my allocated ‘wellbeing advisor’ had insisted I attend. I was lucky enough to have an unbending support system at home, though. The advice and encouragement I received was, selfishly, warmed with the knowledge that the giver was, often, there in the dark with me. I treated myself with kindness, then, because I didn’t feel at fault. I had a role to play, then, in the dark, with whoever else was hurting. Three long years passed and, miraculously, I felt as strong as I had ever been.
But when I got off the phone to my now-ex in September last year with the words ‘I guess that’s it then’ sour in my mouth, it all hit me again. It felt just like grief – the state of utter sleeplessness, the excruciating re-remembering every morning, the compulsion to ring him, knowing there was nothing there for me. It was grief. It made me impossibly small. Every day, I heaved my weak, shrunken body into a pair of shoes and went to work or spent time with beautiful friends, while the shrieking terror of losing him swelled in my head. It was so loud that I could hardly believe I was the only one hearing it. Of course, I wasn’t the only one; my friends heard echoes of it and carried me with them. They fed me and held me in soft hands like I was some wretched baby bird that had fallen out of its nest. I’d have been utterly lost if they hadn’t, but they couldn’t experience it with me, and I wouldn’t have wished them to.
“The dead don’t move or change or update their profile picture; the griever changes, the world changes, but the dead don’t change”
Death is an unfathomable finality. You can’t drunk-call the dead and beg them to come back, and I didn’t have to agonize over the prospect of my dad finding another daughter that he liked more than me. The dead don’t move or change or update their profile picture; the griever changes, the world changes, but the dead don’t change. Death is characterized by its unchanging-ness, which is terrifying and comforting in one big confusing gulp. Losing something that still lives and breathes and loves and talks, though, is subject to change all the time. “How can you come to terms with something so mercurial?” I would have asked the midnight sky during seemingly unending bouts of sleep-deprived panic attacks, had I been able to form such a coherent question. This was the last person my dad had seen me with. This was the last partner who would ever meet him and mutter, “so that’s where you got it from…” This would be the last boyfriend who knew me before the darkness of grief had hardened me into someone I’m deeply proud of today. This breakup was all that grief had been and more – not just because I had to do it without my dad, but also because it reminded me so much of him.
When you lose someone, in whatever capacity, you lose a universe of tiny things that existed between you. And perhaps what is worse, is that you also lose the potential that universe has to expand. Losing my boyfriend meant losing every stupid personal joke we shared, our future plans and my one prevailing constant through some of the darkest moments of my life. Letting go of my relationship meant letting go of the last thing that hadn’t changed since that other unbearable loss. Grief, laments Max Porter, “is everything. It is the fabric of selfhood, and beautifully chaotic”.
“When you lose someone, in whatever capacity, you lose a universe of tiny things that existed between you.”
With almost a year of life and love and experience between that last big loss and me comes a clarity I can’t quite vocalize. It’s a lucidity that comes simply from carrying on. With all things lost, in time, you can smile at old photographs and ticket stubs and the movies and records that brim with the lost’s life and that universe you shared. The grief of losing my relationship – a grief I worried would never leave me – dissipated. I am wildly glad, now, for that loss. I can picture no world in which I didn’t endure it. I’ve strengthened more important relationships that I now couldn’t imagine living without, and I have faced so much since with the kind of self-assuredness that only comes from understanding what you’re capable of bearing: the losses you can live through and learn from.
It gets better.
Words: Faith Newcombe
Illustration: Amber Renfrey